To put Lady Gaga’s career in perspective, let’s begin with a urinal.
Not just any urinal.
But one autographed by pioneering French artist Marcel Duchamp, who famously signed said restroom accoutrement under the pseudonym “R. Mutt” in 1917 and dubbed the piece “Fountain,” which is now considered one of the most influential artworks of the 20th century.
“Fountain” became the best known example of what Duchamp called readymades, everyday manufactured objects from snow shovels to bicycle wheels that Duchamp altered slightly and then displayed as art .
Naturally, Duchamp’s readymades were controversial.
Plenty of critics didn’t consider them art at all.
For Duchamp, this was the whole idea.
His aim was to demonstrate that the process of attempting to define what does and what doesn’t qualify as art is a futile one.
There is no such definition.
How does this relate to Lady Gaga?
Nearly a century later, she’s similarly using found art, albeit of a different sort, to underscore Duchamp’s point.
And like Duchamp, she’s gotten plenty of blowback.
This is because en route to becoming one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, Gaga has made herself a pastiche of easily discernible influences. She took her name from a Queen song, “Radio Ga Ga,” and Freddie Mercury’s glam-opera bombast can be heard all over Gaga’s most recent record, “Born This Way.”
That album’s title track brings to mind another clear touchstone in Gaga’s repertoire: Madonna, whose 1989 hit “Express Yourself” the song seems to take its cue from. In terms of presentation, outspokenness and dance pop discography, Gaga is a direct descendant of the Material Girl.
Elsewhere, there’s echoes of Andy Warhol’s freewheeling Factory studio gatherings of artists and taste makers in Gaga’s Haus of Gaga, a collective of creative types who contribute to multiple aspects of her career, and also a debt to New Age guru Deepak Chopra, whose cast-iron optimism is alive in Gaga’s lyrics.
“Whether life’s disabilities / Left you outcast, bullied or teased / Rejoice and love yourself today,” Gaga sings on “Born This Way,” sounding like a self-help maxim in high heels.
Helen Gurley Brown’s lipstick feminist ideals, Spencer Tunick’s fascination with the human body as art form and Cher’s wardrobe closet are also prominent in Gaga’s works.
Because she’s an amalgamation of all this readily identifiable source material, Gaga has been criticized for being derivative and less than the sum of her parts.
She’s been labeled inauthentic, a star cut from cubic zirconium.
Like Duchamp’s readymades, she’s easy to dismiss because of the pre-fab nature inherent in various components of her career.
But to do so risks missing the point of said career.
Blurring boundaries, between her work and that of others, between gender roles, sexual orientation, even national identity (Gaga sings in Spanish, German and French on her most recent album) is her chief aim.
Everything about Lady Gaga is pointedly open to interpretation. She is whatever you want her to be, and all the contradictions that come along with that: Somehow, she’s a popular outcast, a pious sinner, a loyal flirt all at once.
“I can be anything / I’ll be your everything,” Gaga purrs on “Government Hooker,” and her success is a testament to her ability to live up to her words.
Because of this, she’s impossible to neatly define – just like Duchamp believed art to be.
He used a toilet to make his point.
For Lady Gaga, a meat dress will do.
Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@
reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476.
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